How was 2014 for Corey Lee?
Benu chef and Phaidon author remembers spending two days on Jeju Island with the legendary Haenyo divers
As the year draws to a close we’re naturally getting excited about gearing up for our spring 2015 publication schedule. One of the books we’re really looking forward to is Benu, from San Francisco chef Corey Lee.
The book is both a tribute to, and a reflection of, the experience of dining at the three Michelin star restaurant in San Francisco. Using a classic Benu tasting menu as its narrative, Corey Lee takes the reader through a 33 recipe tasting menu using each of them to share anecdotes on food, cooking and his inspiration. Beautifully written essays detail his inspirations and motivations and allow the reader to experience the drama and poetry of Lee’s cooking.
Stories Corey shares include everything from the difference between western and eastern seasoning, to defining American cuisine and the influence of kung-fu films on his food. The book also features many beautiful images of the restaurant David Chang has called "the best in America" as well as Lee’s own culinary and cultural influences including Korea, Hong Kong and San Francisco. Benu also includes forewards from Chang and Lee’s former French Laundry mentor, Thomas Keller. Obviously, we wanted to ask Corey how 2014 had treated him and what he was looking forward to in the new year. Here's what he told us.
__What was the thing that inspired you most this year? __
"Spending two days on Jeju Island with the legendary Haenyo divers while shooting for our book was by far the most inspiring experience I had this year. These ladies, most of them well in their 60's and 70's, free dive into the rough and cold waters for 6-8 hours at a time collecting various seafood to support their families. It's incredibly hard work, and there's an unmistakeable melancholy in these ladies' demeanor and aura.
"On the afternoon I was with them, after diving for hours, they also showed me how to prepare a very traditional dish unique to Jeju island- a soup of conch and radish thickened with buckwheat. Many of these ladies commented that they hadn't had this dish since their childhood, as buckwheat is used far less now since rice and wheat have become readily available on the island. That experience - cooking and eating a traditional Jeju dish with the Haenyo in their commune - re-calibrated my idea of what makes a food experience memorable, important, and beautiful."
__What was your personal working highlight this year? __
"There are three things that stand out for me when I think of 2014: the opening of our second restaurant, finishing the cookbook, and receiving a third Michelin star."
What can we expect from you in 2015?
"I'm excited just to spend my time at Benu. I think 2015, our fifth year, will be an exciting one for us. We've been working on a lot of things from new techniques to newly designed elements in the dining room, and we'll see all of those things realized in the new year."